March 29, 2007 5:59 pm

The Year of Magical Thinking, Booth Theatre, New York

When Joan Didion in 2005 published The Year of Magical Thinking, which she has now adapted for a 100-minute solo evening starring Vanessa Redgrave as Didion, her detractors were at a disadvantage: how could one attack this autobiographical book- length effort to understand what was, for Didion, the unassailable loss of her family?

Her husband, John Gregory Dunne, died on December 30, 2003, after collapsing at the couple’s Manhattan apartment, and just after the pair had returned from a hospital visit to their daughter, Quintana Roo, who died on August 26, 2005.

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In this often detached- feeling, if elegant, examination of grief, Didion reveals that setting down her emotions was imperative. She writes: “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”

That passage occurs early in the stage adaptation, which includes some verbatim recitation of the book but sees the events from the perspective of a year or two later.

At the Booth we get a series of stunning, semi- abstract drops by the designer Bob Crowley that fall away to accompany Didion’s shedding of illusions; a cream-and-grey costume, with gold Tiffany wrist bangle, assembled by Ann Roth; and direction, by David Hare, that keeps his star seated, with admirable simplicity, for much of the evening.

Occasionally the play exerts an emotional wallop; a section where Didion describes stopping for fuel in the middle of a cornfield in Kansas, as a seriously ill Quintana is being flown from Los Angeles to New York, is devastating.

But mostly we get an illustration of good taste: a play that is deep on the surface. It is brilliantly poised, in other words, to induce acclaim. Even the pleasure of watching Redgrave, who is as tall and aquiline as Didion is short and sparrowish, tends to diminish as the piece unfolds.

This is neither the high- risk/low-yield Redgrave of Orpheus Descending nor the high-risk/high-return Redgrave of Long Day’s Journey Into Night. This is a more emotionally composed, expressively even Redgrave, whose pulled-back white hair and steel-blue eyes have rarely looked more beautiful, but whose tendency towards dry, incantatory inflection can only do so much to interpret the undeniably heartfelt yet anecdotally thin text.
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